The evolution of finance leaders: What to search for when hiring a great CFO

April 27, 2018

CFO’s typically performed a critical role as “housekeeper” of a company, being the ultimate check and balance against a company’s performance in financial terms, including strategic planning, setting and monitoring financial targets. The nature of their role has not changed much except that outstanding CFO’s notably conduct themselves differently from average CFO’s. But just how has there been an evolution of finance leaders?

We know CFOs managing matrix-structured organizations cannot afford to be expert in just one business or dedicated to one business leader which leads to an inability to make objective decisions. Today’s CFOs need not only be acutely aware of their company’s overall market position when it comes to challenging any strategic plans and manage geopolitical risks worldwide but they have to be the true expert contributor to their CEO’s and Board members.

Deloitte published an article in their Power by the CFO Program April 2016 entitled Four Faces of the CFO which brings a new definition of the key functions that must be mastered by the modern CFO’s: 1. They must be a Catalyst a Steward a Strategist and an Operator.

Catalyst

The objective is to stimulate behaviors across the organization to achieve strategic and financial objectives i.e. be the best business partners to all executives: CIO, COO, VP HR, VP Sales, Board Members.  Must be the expert in defining optimal target and measure performance.  Will initiate KPI framework and Balance Scorecard.

Steward

The objective is to protect and preserve the assets of the organization.  Ensure legal and compliance and establish various control requirements.

Strategist

The objective is to provide leadership with respect to financial alignment and business strategies such as M&A, investments, capitalization of the company for examples. They define threshold of risk tolerance.

Operator

The core objective is to balance capabilities, talent, costs and service levels to fulfill the organization’s financial responsibilities. Cost balance, defining financial responsibilities and setting most efficient services.

Today’s CFO is fast becoming a significant leader in the management team and challenging the stereotype of an introverted, analytical, data-discharge expert performing the CFO function. CFOs are stepping up to the management platform to be more inclusive of external stakeholders and as well as maintaining the integrity of the finance function.  They must understand the importance of talking directly to customers (external and internal) to appreciate client needs. This helps CFO’s keep business unit objectives aligned with those of the entire company.

Effective CFO’s will invest their time with key internal leaders outside of the finance function.  There is always a lot going on and understanding key issues and deliverables outside of their financial reality helps CFO’s stay in tune with all the operational indicators.  In addition, CFOs must take the lead in mapping business issues with other executives and clarify questions for which they need answers. 

In an article published by Forbes in Thought Leaders by Kasia Morena, we can clearly see these trends in the new CFO profile:

‘’For one thing, finance only begins to describe what the C-suite, shareholders and the rest of the business expects of a finance chief. CFOs are expected to play a more strategic role in the C-suite at the same time that technology and globalization are adding layers of complexity—and overwhelming opportunity—to the corporate finance function in the Asia-Pacific region in particular. Perhaps chief technology evangelizer, chief strategic engineer or chief operations partner should share the billing with the finance title. CFOs today are expected to fill all of these roles.’’

But what is even more revealing is to identify what key executive stakeholders have identified as their needs from their CFO’s.

Mrs. Moreno backs her observations through the results of a most interesting survey that was conducted by Forbes Insights and KPMG in 2015 and which surveyed 178 chief executives, to gauge these expectations,  business owners and chairmen of large companies to understand their changing views. The survey spanned 13 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region. CEOs from ANZ Australia, Pactera, Minor Hotel Group and other companies in the region also shared their views during in-depth one-on-one interviews.

What the survey found was that CEOs want to see more big-picture, strategic thinking from their CFOs. The greatest opportunity for a CFO to impact the value of an organization: contributing to performance and growth, say six out of ten CEOs. Yet many CFOs remain lost in the numbers, mired in regulatory minutiae, distracted by the daily demands of different compliance, tax and financial reporting regimes.

Key findings are quite clear:

  1. CEOs have set a high bar for CFOs. 
  2. CEOs feel their CFOs are not up to the challenge. 
  3. CEOs value growth-oriented initiatives the most, and traditional areas of the finance function the least.  They want CFO’s to have a big-picture thinking and strategic approach.
  4. CFOs need to transform the regulatory burden into an opportunity—or at least avoid getting mired in it to the detriment of big-picture thinking.
  5. Technology will be a make-or-break test for CFOs
  6. CEOs put a huge value on people skills and see their CFOs as lacking in them. 

80% of CEOs from high-performing organizations say that nothing is more important than talent management but many also believe their CFOs can and should do a better job of managing their teams. For Mrs. Morena from the survey results, one thing is clear: something has to change if CFOs are going to close the gap between the expectations of their CEOs and the reality on the ground. Are CFOs up to the challenge? Are CEOs expectations even realistic? What is the best course for CFOs who see the potential of becoming a more strategic business partner—or for the many CFOs who have set their sights on becoming a CEO?

Time will certainly tell.

This article was written by Stephane Vincent and Guy Larivière of Glasford International Canada. Contact Stephane or Guy to learn more about sourcing CFO’s for your organization.

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